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ITU-T TechWatch Alert (July 2009


Mobile Applications
By any measure Apple’s App Store has been a great success, passing the milestone of one
billion downloaded applications (apps) in less than ten months, and reaching 1.5 billion
downloads in one year. 1 Indeed, the availability of a wide choice of apps can be critical
to the commercial success of new smartphones. Even as more smartphones are sold, the
creation of mobile applications to run on them is constrained by the fragmentation of the
market between different platforms.

Mobile apps are add-on software for handheld devices, such as smartphones and personal
digital assistants (PDA). Among the most popular are games, social networking, maps,
news, business, weather and travel information. All of these leverage at least one of the
device’s technical features: communications interfaces (Wi-Fi, WiBro/mobile WiMAX,
GSM/EDGE, W-CDMA/UMTS/HSPA and Bluetooth), audio and video processors,
camera, sensors or GPS module.

Handset manufacturers, mobile network operators and suppliers of mobile operating
systems (see Table 1) are opening storefronts on-line in attempts to capitalize on growing
consumer demand. High-end devices that are able to run mobile apps need an attractive
and expanding range of these apps if they are to generate hardware sales and network
revenues. Between 2008 and 2009, research firm Ovum expects the market for
smartphones to grow by 23 per cent, against an overall decline in the total mobile phone
market caused by the economic crisis. 2 Smartphone shipments are forecast to reach more
than 400 million by 2014, nearly all capable of running apps from at least one store.

Table 1: Characteristics of selected mobile platforms 3
Vendor Operating system (OS) Programming Language Application store (launch date)

Apple iPhone OS Objective-C iPhone App Store (07/08)
LiMo Foundation LiMo Platform (Linux) Java, native (C/C++) not yet available
Microsoft Windows Mobile Visual C#/C++ Windows Mobile Marketplace (09/09)
Open Handset Alliance Android (Linux) Java Android Market (10/08)
Palm OS C/C++
Palm Palm App Catalog (06/09)
webOS (Linux) JavaScript, HTML5
Qualcomm BREW C/C++ Plaza Retail (05/08)
RIM BlackBerry OS Java BlackBerry App World (04/09)
Symbian Foundation Symbian C++ Nokia Ovi Store (05/09)

Apple offers 65,000 different apps. The most popular downloads are listed at
Ovum: “Smartphones: the silver lining of the declining handset market.” Gartner projects global handset sales will fall by 4 per
cent in 2009, see
Note that some handsets and app stores have carrier agreements and are not available worldwide.

ITU-T TechWatch Alert (July 2009)

Box 1: ITUing on your smartphone – Ideas for the first mobile ITU app?
The TechWatch Secretariat is interested in your ideas
for mobile applications related to ITU, ITU-T
Recommendations, etc. Which is your preferred mobile
platform, and what kind of information about ITU
would you like to be able to retrieve using your
Please send your comments, ideas and suggestions to and join the Technology Watch
Correspondence Group, at

Image: “P1i Outside” at Flickr. Uploaded by topgold.

A recent market study by consultant Gravitytank of owners of smartphones revealed that
70 per cent of respondents had purchased and installed one app in the previous month and
that users had an average of 21 installed apps. 4 A quarter of these were paid apps, with
prices starting at around US$1. Many applications are offered free of charge, in order to
win new customers for a future paid application, others are for customers of an already
existing website or service (see Box 1). For instance, the NY Times app for BlackBerry
and iPhone fetches the latest news and displays it proportioned to the screen of the
device, with the option to customize the selection of news items.

In most cases, apps are programmed by third party developers. However, they remain
subject to approval by store owners (in many cases, such as Apple, by the phone
manufacturer itself) that take care of distribution, payment and limited marketing of the
product, in return for some 30 per cent of the sales price of each application.

Since the billing system, rating by users and marketing mechanisms are common for
thousands of apps, online stores represent a potentially highly profitable activity for their
owners (see also “The Long Tail” 5 ). The latest upgrade of the iPhone OS (3.0) extends
this approach to microcommerce, allowing developers to sell premium content or services
within their apps, using the store to collect one-off or subscription fees. 6 Mobile
marketing in the form of branded applications and in-application advertising is starting to
take off and promising additional revenues. 7 In addition, the software store business is a
facilitator of hardware sales.

Rejection of a third party app can be triggered by objectionable content (e.g., obscenity)
or duplication of functions contained in those bundled with the device. Some network
operators fear “cannibalization” of existing services from new functionalities and
therefore restrict applications such as:

Gravitytank: “And then there were apps.”
Wired Magazine: “The Long Tail.” (October 2004)
AdvertisingAge: “Mobile Marketing: Is ‘App-vertising’ the Answer?” (13 May 2009)

ITU-T TechWatch Alert (July 2009)

 VoIP apps that challenge conventional voice calls (e.g., Skype 8 );
 IM (Instant Messaging) apps that challenge SMS; and
 Apps that would speed-up surfing and limit online traffic.

These, together with the fear of malware (malicious software), make vendors hesitant to
allow developers direct access to the core functionalities of a device, including the phone
module, the web browser, the email client and the media player.

Restrictions by manufacturers, vendors and providers have led to a practice, which for the
iPhone became known as jailbreaking. After the installation of an unofficial software
patch, users can bypass the official app distribution mechanism, and install unapproved
grey-market applications. For instance, the application iPhoneModem 9 allows the phone
to share its Internet connection with a PC or Mac. Until recently, Apple did not approve
Internet sharing applications. 10 Generally, jailbreaking a device voids manufacturer

Variations and/or ambiguity in these manufacturer restrictions and the lack of
interoperability between platforms are obstacles to development of the mobile apps
market. Apps written by developers for one device must be rewritten, since application
programming interfaces (API) and software development kits (SDK) are specific to each
of the major platforms. This process slows time to market, limits market size, prevents
customers from using purchased apps on devices of a different type, and causes customer
confusion about availability and features.

However, the differences between mobile platforms seem to disappear in some areas. The
open source WebKit browser engine 11 that concentrates some of the latest technologies
for web browsers is the basis for most mobile web browsers; the API of OpenGL ES 12 , a
standard for graphics for embedded systems, is now widely used to address the graphics
hardware of mobile devices.

Backed by the popularity of its founding member Google, the Open Handset Alliance
(OHA) is a group of 47 companies whose stated purpose is a commitment to greater
openness in the mobile ecosystem. 13 Its flagship is the open source Linux-based mobile
platform Android, which is already showing signs of rapid adoption by manufacturers,
operators, application developers and users 14 , and is now to be found on some netbooks
and other devices, including in-vehicle infotainment systems. 15 Even before consumer

APC Magazine: “Mobile carriers seek to block Skype on iPhone, BlackBerry,” (6 April 2009)
iPhone OS 3.0, released on 17 June 2009, supports Internet sharing (“tethering”) in some countries.
13 (12 June 2009)
See Ovum source

ITU-T TechWatch Alert (July 2009)

Figure 1: OneAPI scheme

Source: GSMA 3rd Party Access Project – OneAPI,

devices equipped with Android were available, thousands of app developers jumped into
this market, hoping to be ready for the launch of the first Android devices.
Available on some 30 different handset models, the LiMo Platform (Linux Mobile) is an
open operating system for use by the whole mobile industry. The LiMo Foundation was
founded by NEC, NTT docomo, Orange, Panasonic, Samsung and Vodafone, and has
expanded to more than 50 international members. 16

Another industry forum, the Open Mobile Terminal Platform (OMTP) aims at
“simplifying the customer experience of mobile data services and improving mobile
device security.” 17 It recently published the BONDI specification, which defines
interfaces for secure access to the core functionalities of a device from its web browser or
user interface. This avoids developers being locked into one particular platform and
enables them to write applications for all BONDI capable handsets.

The GSM Association’s OneAPI initiative 18 seeks to define a commonly supported API
to allow operators to disclose information about and capabilities of their mobile network
to app developers. The API supports content creation and apps that are portable across
the networks of different operators, and provide common interfaces for messaging,
location, user data, connection and charging (see Figure 1). The initiative also aims at
working with standards bodies on the needs of developers for APIs.

ITU has contributed to the considerable success of mobile communications and
applications, including through its role as the global manager of the radio-frequency
spectrum, publisher of the IMT-2000 family of standards (3G) and pioneer of IMT-
Advanced standards (Beyond 3G). A unique international mobile subscriber identity
(IMSI) conforming to ITU-T E.212 is stored in each SIM card and used for identification
when interconnecting between (mobile) networks. Many handsets carry implementations
of ITU-T Recommendations, for example, speech and audio codecs, such as G.718 or


ITU-T TechWatch Alert (July 2009)

G.722.2, multimedia decoders for H.263 and H.264 or conform to handset specifications
in ITU-T P.300 series of Recommendations. 19

Software developers are demanding lightweight standards and interfaces, which are
easily understood and adopted in their applications. In the field of multimedia,
accessibility, hands-free communication/user-interfaces and mobile television are areas to
keep an eye on. Also, the fusion of communications and location offers potential
applications and (location-based) services far beyond automotive navigation systems.
Finally, the challenge continues for mobile network operators, service providers and their
customers to find solutions to user authentication, identity management and privacy.
These points need to be addressed not only from a technical angle, but also under
regulatory and policy perspectives, as laws increasingly obligate mobile operators to
fulfill the same functions as fixed-line operators.

ITU estimates that by the end of 2007, about 85 countries worldwide had launched 3G
networks, and that by the end of 2008, there were close to 335 million mobile broadband
subscribers. 20 To date, mobile broadband uptake is predominantly in the developed
world, where penetration has reached 14 per cent, compared to less than one per cent in
the developing world. While these trends suggest that developing economies have much
catching up to do, technological advances especially in the mobile sector are offering new
possibilities and the potential to help more and more people communicate, and to take
advantage of mobile apps and services at increasingly high speed.

Increased focus on standards for open and interoperable APIs would contribute to the
success of mobile applications.

This ITU-T TechWatch Alert was prepared by Martin Adolph ( The opinions
expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International
Telecommunication Union or its membership. To find out more about ITU-T’s Technology Watch
Function, please visit

The vast majority of final ITU-T Recommendations are available as PDF free of charge, at
ITU: “Measuring the Information Society - The ICT Development Index.” 2009 Edition, available at Note: Not all mobile broadband subscribers
are actual users of mobile broadband services. ITU considers those IMT-2000/3G mobile technologies that
are supportive of broadband speeds in line with fixed broadband – i.e. CDMA2000 1X EVDO, W-CDMA
and HSDPA – as mobile broadband.